Photo © iStockphoto.com/ Jennifer Trenchard
It was a different kind of Ash
Wednesday, Inspector James
Luongo of the New York City
Police Department (NYPD)
remembers. Luongo, 47, has the
command of Catholic language
of a seminary professor, combined with
the gravelly tones of a city cop right out
of the first half hour of a Law and Order episode.
He remembers the priest intoning, “You are dust, and to dust you shall
return.” He remembers looking around
the drab late winter scene in 2002 at the
Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island,
New York, where he supervised hundreds
of workers who moved the
remains of the World Trade Center to
one of the highest points on the eastern
coast of the United States, piled
high with garbage.
If ever the Church’s symbolism was apt,
it’s here, Luongo thought. That crew,
before their assignment ended in June
2002, sifted through 1.8 million tons of
debris, 4,257 human remains, 54,000
personal items and 4,000 photographs,
helping in the identification of more
than 200 dead over six months. All
around was dust, the visible reminder
of mortality. He experienced Ash
Wednesday every day of the week for
close to 10 months.
Luongo, a former catechist at his
Staten Island parish, is quick to see
Catholic symbols in his own 9/11 experience
and the grim work that followed
at the landfill. He processes the experience
in the language of police work
and in his affinity for his Catholic faith.
“It was a corporal work of mercy,” he
recalls, remembering the long process
of identifying the dead and escorting
family members through the rubble.
Twice a week, the families would come,
and he’d whisper a prayer that he and
his fellow workers—representing the
F.B.I., C.I.A., NYPD and even those from
the Department of Agriculture, there
to chase the seagulls away—would be
able to withstand the emotional pressure.
They were regular eyewitnesses
to raw grief.
“It was a walk with God,” Luongo
Unable to Forget
That walk for him actually began with
a desperate sprint. On the day of 9/11,
Luongo, like most of the New York City
police force, was on the scene at the
World Trade Center doing his job. As
the second tower collapsed, he ran for
his life alongside a fire department
chaplain. As they ran, Luongo asked
for and received absolution.
On one level, God seemed far away
on that eerily bright late summer’s day
that changed the world. Evil had a field
day. But for those who survived, God’s
Like much of the rest of the country,
church attendance around New York
spiked during the weeks after 9/11.
Those numbers have gone down to normal as the years have progressed.
Still, if there are no atheists in foxholes,
as the cliché goes, even those
survivors who don’t describe themselves
as particularly religious still contemplate
God’s role in their lives.
They report that outsiders would
sympathize, offering consolation for
enduring a terrorist strike. But their
sympathy was often misplaced. One
common question for the survivors is
why they are the lucky ones, while
nearly 3,000 friends and acquaintances
perished on a day many would like to
forget, but are simply unable.
Those Left Behind
One such survivor is Claribel Made,
30, of the Bronx, New York, who
worked at a brokerage firm at 5 World
Trade Center on 9/11. The building
was adjacent to the towers and was
quickly evacuated. She saw death literally
pour down from the skies, as people
jumped off the towers onto the
pavement. A man in front of her was
torn apart by glass falling from the
buildings and died instantly.
She survived, but not without battling
the demons from that day. For
weeks, Made slept with her sneakers
on, ready to make a quick escape. Distrusting
the safety of tall buildings, she
left her 14th-floor Bronx apartment for
her parents’ home.
She has now moved back to her
apartment and works for a different
firm in midtown Manhattan. Yet to
this day, she never leaves work at 5
p.m., preferring to let the rush-hour
Yvonne Robinson, 42, is another survivor
is who left New York soon after
9/11. She now works for the city of
Palm Coast, Florida, where she lives
with her mother. Five years ago, she
was an office worker for the Port
Authority, the New York/New Jersey
agency that built the World Trade
On 9/11, she walked with her co-workers
down more than 80 flights of
stairs, just eight years after the first terrorist
attack on the building damaged
the office where she used to work. Some
of her co-workers never made it out.
“It was a sign from God that it was
time for me to go,” she says about why
she made the decision to leave New
York City. Surviving two acts of terrorism
Occasionally, she says, particularly
when the events are rebroadcast on
news programs, “I do feel saddened
and overwhelmed to the point of tears.”
That terrible day comes back to her in
occasional bouts of nervousness and
fear. For example, when the building in
Florida where she worked experienced
a blackout, Robinson ran in panic, as
the memories of the attacks on 9/11
came flooding back.
Helen Dollard of Staten Island was
not at the World Trade Center on
9/11. But the attacks cost the life of
her son, Neil, a 28-year-old brokerage
worker. He was the youngest of her five
Like many 9/11 survivors, Dollard
wonders about the justice of being alive
while so many others perished.
“It’s hard for me as a mother to say
why I am still here at age 68,” she says.
“Neil never had a chance to get married
and raise a family and have the life
She coped in large part through
meetings of survivors at Mount Manresa
Retreat House, a Jesuit facility on
Staten Island that housed workers at the
landfill and provided counseling and
support for families affected by 9/11.
(Staten Island, New York City’s most
suburban-like borough, is home to
many brokerage workers, firefighters
and police officers, groups greatly
affected by the World Trade Center
Dollard found that sharing her grief
with those who understood aided her
Still Dealing With That Day
The staff at Manresa pitched in immediately,
like many church agencies
around the city. For a short while, the
bridges off the island were closed for
security reasons, and tourists were
stranded, unable to reach the airports,
which were also shut down.
The retreat house provided shelter at
that time, as well as later for the out-of-town
workers at the Staten Island landfill. Mount Manresa is still filled with
memorials to those who died and personal
thank-yous from those who were
Five years later, 9/11 remains a vivid
memory to most New Yorkers. Movies
have been made. Investigations have
produced studies. Two wars have been
launched in response to those events.
Television commentators are sure to
pronounce about the significance of
9/11 as the fifth anniversary approaches
this year. Still, some New Yorkers who
experienced or saw the destruction of
9/11 are reluctant to talk.
“I am still dealing with it,” explains
a Franciscan priest who ministered to
rescue workers on a regular basis, declining
“I don’t talk about what I saw,” says
a Long Island volunteer fireman who
worked on the long lines taking material
and body parts out of the collapsed
buildings just days after the attacks.
Others grasp for theological language to
reflect their own feelings. Luongo likes
to point out that, while evil seemingly
triumphed on 9/11, he prefers to look
at the goodness that became routine in
the weeks and months afterward.
First, he saw goodness in the families
who came to the landfill, offering their
thanks readily to those who labored
“These people had horrific losses in
their lives,” he notes. Yet, he says, “They
would be so concerned about us.”
Anyone who was there knows that
New York was a different place in the
months afterward. It was said that
nearly everyone, in what is a huge and
often unwieldy place, at least knew of
someone directly affected. Grief made
the city, for a short time, into a kind of
battered small town where feelings were
shared and prayers were offered among
The response was visible. Manhattan
was filled with shrines to the dead,
candles burning in their honor. Firehouses
were swamped with tokens of
thanks for rescue efforts that ended in
the deaths of hundreds of firefighters.
Some noticed the particularly Catholic
shrine symbolism in a city that, while
known for urbane secularism, remains
heavily Catholic and Jewish.
Besides the religious rituals, it was a
time of good works, both publicized
A Long Island volunteer fireman—who did not want to be identified
because he did not want his actions to
appear any greater than what his fellow
volunteers did—spent many days at
the funerals of firefighters, professionals
from the city who died on 9/11. It
didn’t matter that he was a part-time
firefighter, not a professional, or that he
was borrowing time from his business
in Manhattan. He was needed because
the families of the victims wanted their
presence and there were not enough
FDNY firefighters available to attend
the hundreds of funerals that took place
in waves around the outer boroughs
and into the Long Island suburbs.
“You had to show the line of blue.
The families needed to see the lines
of blue. It didn’t matter what fire department
they represented,” says the
Survivors remember the little acts of
kindness that helped them get through
Made said she couldn’t have gotten
through it without the help of her parents
and a friend who came from
Florida to be with her for a few weeks.
Going back to work three days later,
being with people who experienced
the same thing, also helped.
Within a few months, she was able to go out to dinner—a personal milestone.
It was a small triumph, but something
she could never have done
without the help of family and friends.
“I don’t take anyone for granted anymore,”
Robinson says that, ever since 9/11,
she is more concerned about family
members, checking on them regularly
to make sure they are O.K. Every night
that she comes in late from work, she
checks on her mother to make sure she
is well. It is a habit she formed only
after the towers fell.
The Role of Faith
Some survivors say the experience has
brought them closer to God in a formal,
religious sense. Dollard, a Catholic,
spent many years away from the
Church. Yet, at her son’s memorial service,
she felt a closeness—a sense that
through the prayer and rituals he was
right beside her—that stirred her to
become a regular churchgoing Catholic.
She joined a Scripture group at her
parish, Holy Rosary on Staten Island.
Besides her garden, she says, church is
the one place “where I feel at peace.”
Soon after Neil’s death, she picked up
The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism and
began reeducating herself about her
faith. Her son’s death, she says, has
made her more aware of her own mortality
and spiritual well-being.
“I know that Neil’s death wasn’t
intended to help me regain my spirituality,”
she says. “But I am getting older
in life and will not go on forever. I am
now better prepared for what will come
Not everyone has the same kind of
revelation about the need for formal
religious practice. Robinson and Made,
for example, note that they are not
regular churchgoers, although Made,
raised a Catholic in an immigrant family
from the Dominican Republic, has
found comfort in an evangelical church
Made, a single woman, admits to
being angry at God soon after 9/11.
It was an anger mixed with her survivor
anxiety. “I was angry for the children
left behind without their parents.
Why didn’t I die? I didn’t have any
Robinson says that she has been
drawn closer to God, even if that
closeness is not always expressed in a
formal religious setting. She occasionally
attends a Palm Coast Methodist
church with her mother, and she prays
Her life is busy. She maintains two
jobs, bought a house and is engaged to
get married. The crowded New York
streets and her tiny Brooklyn apartment
are faint memories. She now
basks in the warmth of the Florida sun
in a quiet suburban town. The change
in scenery has helped.
Luongo is still in New York doing
his police work, tracking down suspects
from his lower Manhattan
precinct, not too far from what is now
a giant hole in the ground at the World
Trade Center. He made room for a talk
with a reporter in between attending his
daughter’s softball games and investigating
a brutal New York murder, the kind that enlivens the tabloids for a
day or two.
He is convinced that prayer helped
him cope during the 10 months he
spent at the landfill. This was unprecedented
work. No one in history had
ever attempted to move the remains
of such colossal buildings.
But Luongo believes that the decisions
that were made, done in a spirit
of prayer and reflection, turned out the
right way. As much as was possible, the
corporal work of mercy of disposing of
the dead in a proper manner took place
at that Staten Island landfill.
“It became a very trusting experience.
I knew that, if I prayed, we would
have help with the decisions we made,”
Some commentators after 9/11 concluded
that the country would never
return to life as normal. No longer
would little things matter much amidst
the turmoil of a world gone seemingly
mad brought directly to sheltered American
shores. But at least one spiritual
counselor active at the time has concluded
that they were wrong. The survivors
can attest that much of life goes
on as normal. There are baptisms, weddings,
rituals that accompany life's joyous
“Life triumphs and evil is not winning,”
says the counselor, who has found
that those New Yorkers who suffered
through the nation's worst catastrophe
have now gone on with their lives.
“This is the type of thing you never
get over but you will get used to it. You
will experience joy in your lives again.
I believe that. That is the nature of
grace,” he says. If the past five years
have proved anything, it is that the
gloom of Ash Wednesday atop a garbage
dump does not last forever.
Peter Feuerherd is a New York freelance writer and
author of Holy Land USA: A Catholic Ride Through
America’s Evangelical Landscape (Crossroad).
Remembering 9/11: Find ways to remember the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in our special feature.